Tuesday, 21 December 2010

In 2003,  having recently separated from my wife while also being made redundant after a fifteen year career in broadcasting,  I set an entirely new course and ran away to sea as an Entertainments Officers for a major cruise line, P&O.

In the entries below, I chronicle my first six weeks at sea at a time of conflicting liberty and emotional undertow.

Read on and find out how I got on!

M.V. Aurora

Thursday 20th Feb.  “Flight Out”:  Flight out to meet my ship which is currently working the Caribbean out of Florida.  Alas BA are cramming seats into their planes like never before so we had charter-like leg room for a ten-hour flight which was a bit much.  We were on time I suppose.

Friday 21st Feb.  “Arrival”:  After a night at an airport hotel in Miami we were then bussed the 30 minutes to Fort Lauderdale to meet our ship.  She's 856 feet long and from her top-most deck to the waterline she stands at about 120 feet,  so it was an awesome sight as we approached the gangway.  Literally,  she stood before us, a vast gleaming wall of white ship.
The Red Ensign

About the “MV.OCEANA”
Formerly the Ocean Princess,  the Oceana was moved across from P&O’s sister company Princess Cruises last year to become the Oceana.   At 77,000 gross tonnes she is 3,000 tonnes bigger than the QEII and is now Britain’s largest cruise ship.  She was built in Italy and with fifteen decks she has a capacity of 2,000 passengers and 800 crew.  It is said that galley staff prepare a grand total of 12,000 meals for crew and passengers every day.

After our arrival at the Cruise Terminal in Port Everglades, Florida, we were brought on board via the main service entrance which leads on to what they call the 'M1'.  This is a wide corridor beneath the passenger decks that runs down the centre of the ship from stern to bow.  You'll find no fancy carpets or trimmings down here.  It's just pure nuts and bolts and endless metal stairways.  It was crammed with about two hundred people ... Indians,  Indonesians,  Filipinos,  Scots,  Welsh,  Irish .... whatever.  The comings and goings and shifting and moving of supplies along this thoroughfare were awesome.  It was like one of those scenes in a war film where the vessel is being prepared for war.  As it was,  it was just the regular two-week turnaround. 

After signing on at the Crew Office it was up to the Cruise Director’s office and from that moment my feet hardly touched the ground for several days as I grappled to take in the rules and whys and wherefores of the various activities that I will be supervising/hosting be it quoits,  shuffleboard,  whist drives, golf, table-tennis etc.

A cruise ship like this works pretty well as an exclusive hotel complex with gorgeous dining rooms,  very comfortable bars,  a theatre, a big show lounge,  a nightclub and just short of two thousand passenger who are I would have to say a very friendly bunch.  Many of them have been cruising for years and they all know that you're the new guy on board so they are really very sweet and supportive.

The sea is entirely incidental and my whole focus is what is happening on board the ship.  Apart from the occasional reminder from a few choppy moments you really do forget that you are at sea at all.

Enjoying the Sights!

Sunday 23rd Feb.  “Force 7”:  We’ve been at sea for a couple of days now as we make our way to Aruba.  For the last 24 hours we’ve been churning around in a Force 7 gale but my sea-legs are pretty good.  When other crew members ask me if I've been to sea before I tell them 'no', but I say I spent many years making the Irish Sea crossings.  They give me a knowing look as if to say,  well you’re no stranger to rough seas then.

“Sunday Service”.  This morning we had the Sunday Service led by the Captain with his senior officers in attendance.  This only occurs on Sundays when the ship is at sea.  It’s usually a popular event attended by about 300 passengers and consists of a number of hymns and some readings.  They have a pealing of bells playing over the ship’s PA system summoning the passengers to prayer and a board with the hymn numbers at the front of the theatre.  It’s quite a sweet business and feels strangely nautical.

By the way,  I’ve been asked to point out that the Captain does not have the sanction to marry people at sea,  so get it done before you come out,  or wait till you get home after your two weeks at sea together sharing a small cabin,  by which time you’ll know if you really should go ahead or not.

Me and the Harbour Bridge, Sydney

And I’ve also been asked to point out that the Captain no longer buries people at sea.  Not for any religious reasons but in these environmentally conscious times ships are prohibited from discharging their waste overboard.  Indeed there was an incident involving the Arcadia a couple of years ago when she inadvertently decapitated a whale with her propellers.  A messy enough business as you can imagine,  but even messier when the ship was obliged to have the carcass hauled on deck for dismemberment by a special contractor brought on board for the job.  (That must be quite a job.  I can picture the scene down at The Anchor and Harpoon in Nantucket:  ‘So, what do you do for a living?  Oh I dismember dead whales’.  ‘That’s lubbery’.  ‘Well,  I think your lubbery too.  So,  your place or mine?’)

Monday 24th February.  “Like Ships In The Night”:  Today we rendezvoused with one of our sister ships,  Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess.  It’s a long held tradition that sister ships when they are close by in the same waters will execute a sail past and salute each other with much blowing of the ships’ whistles.  This was the form and it was quite a site particularly as the Grand Princess is some forty thousand tonnes more than we are.  A little further in the distance could be seen Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas.  At 135,000 tonnes she is currently the largest passenger vessel at sea.

Ship mate, Franklin, on the Suez Canal

Tuesday 25th February. “Limon For A Chinky”:  Arrival in Limon in Costa Rica where I joined up with a bunch of the ship’s musicians who were on a quest to track down a Chinese restaurant which was said to be nearby.  We find it though eating a chinky in Costa Rica isn’t entirely my idea of culinary titillation.  Still, the company was good and we passed a very interesting corner bar full of large breasted prostitutes being propositioned by hoards of Filipino crew from one of the other cruise ships in port that day.  It was quite funny seeing one chubby little Filipino going off with some big bertha almost three times his size.  Somehow I don’t think he was going to make much of an impression on her but he was certainly going to have a good time trying.

Dusk prior to transitting the Suez Canal

Friday 28th Feb.  “The Passenger List”:   A lady on my table this evening remarked how as an Entertainments Officer … ‘…you must meet such an interesting variety of people’.  ‘Oh very much so indeed!’  I affirmed.  However,  the reality is that the passengers are so much of a type that you’ll hardly distinguish them from one cruise to the next.  They’re pretty well all in their sixties,  all white,  they all read the Daily Mail and they’re all equally concerned about the number of immigrants entering Britain today.  Having said that, like most British people they are universally decent and nice and easy to get along with.  Alas,  all too rarely we do have the odd Black or Asian family on board and I tend to go out of my way to make them feel welcome.
Just Ordinary Folk: P&O Shuffleboarders

Sunday 27th Feb.  “My Cabin”:  My cabin is a more than comfortable affair with an integral shower and loo.  It’s dimensions are roughly 7ft wide by 12 ft long with two largish portholes which let a good bit of light in.  There’s a fridge and a telly and although it only has a single berth it’s very comfortable and I’ve yet to have a bad night’s sleep.

Being on deck four the cabin is about 14ft above the waterline but quite often the cabin steward will be sent in to close the deadlights which are bolted metal covers which can be secured to seal the porthole.  (It is not uncommon that in bad enough seas waves can smash the portholes). 

Tuesday 1st March.  “Travellin’ Alone Reception”:  This is for those passengers, invariably widows, who are travelling without any companions and the Entertainments Department gives a little sherry reception for them at the start of their cruise so that they are made to feel welcome and can pal up with other ‘travelling alone’ passengers.  Usually they’ll have done lots of cruises and I can’t help pondering how their husbands probably worked themselves into early graves and now their widows are reaping the benefits and having a fine old time of it.  Dancing on the grave, or what?

At one of the morning meetings,  the Cruise Director publicly praised me for sitting down and keeping some little old dear company for a half an hour while she told me about her various ailments.  Slightly uncomfortable at being singled out in this way,  I remarked that I was merely trying to work my way into her will.   Especially after she mentioned something about a delightful holiday cottage in Devon.

Island View and Cumulus:
As seen while navigating the Great Barrier Reef
Thursday 3rd March.  “A Visit to the Bridge”:  First visit to the bridge today.  Don’t get too excited though.  As with the flight decks of modern aircraft these days the whole operation has been scaled down to a number of large computerised navigation screens and most dispiriting of all a joystick where once there would have been the ships wheel.  In fact, so barren an area is today’s bridge that two rubber tree plants have been placed at either end in a feeble attempt to fill out the area a bit.

The Ward Room & Crew Bar:  Both are hell holes though the Crew Bar is marginally the more hellish of the two.  It’s a large area which is mainly packed out with the concessionaires, shop staff and musicians.  The Ward Room at least is carpeted but for the most part it is replete only with young engineer officers getting very pissed and playing CDs very loudly on the music system.   No pink gins here, m’dear.  Having said that,  by the time I get to drink there which is never before midnight it has quietened down somewhat and I usually end up chatting with the Indian bar stewards.  Very nice chaps.

There are some rather irksome dress code rules which apply.  You can drink in the Ward Room in your own clothes when not on duty.  However,  to eat in the officers mess you must be in uniform at all times.  You may drink in the Crew Bar only at the invitation of a member of the crew and if you do enter this area you must be in uniform also.

Corsica Gendarme

I don’t necessarily have a problem with such rules and regulations it just takes a bit of getting used and with them come the realisation that ship life takes over what you formerly took to be a social life.  It then becomes clear why sea-folk go a little crazy when they hit dry land. 

Friday 4th March.  “Colon”:  Wandered around Colon today which is a port town in Panama and close to the Panama Canal.  Place is very impoverished and decrepit.  Somehow it felt very Graham Greenish and as I wandered too far off the beaten track I was stopped by two very smart looking police officers who sternly advised me to move back to the town centre where I would be ‘safer’.
Hong Kong City Nightlights
Saturday 5th March.  “Muster Drill”:  New complement of passengers and another Muster Drill.  A very serious responsibility this, though more importantly about the only chance an Entertainments Officer will have to be a complete c***.  To the crew at any rate. 

There are three main muster station points on the ships and I am second-in-charge of the largest.  By maritime law a muster drill must be performed by the ship’s company and passengers at the beginning of each cruise before setting sail.  Now, on Florida departures when the passengers will have been travelling sometimes as much as 24 hours to get to the ship the last thing they want to do is take part in a drill.  So there’s a lot of grumbling that goes on but you just have to be firm with people and act as as authoritively as you can.  ‘In the unlikely event’ as they say of a genuine emergency passengers lives will genuinely be in your hands and in training you are told,  no matter how bad the scenario you must at all times look as if you’re totally in charge and on top of the situation.  Remember:  nothing spreads quite like panic.

Party Nights:  Oh How I Hated Them!

“For the record”:  there are 16 lifeboats and 64 life-rafts with a total capacity of 3,800 which should be about enough for the 2,800 passengers and crew on-board.  I don’t know if this is just an American phenomenon (the ship was originally built for the American market) but there is no lifeboat ‘No.13’.  I find this more than a little bizarre given the fact that if it is necessary to head for the lifeboats at all then whatever luck you were counting on has long since vanished.  I mean,  if there’s a fire on board, are you going to stay and fry because if you jump overboard you might drown.

Sunday 6th March.  “Breakfast with the Captain”.   A very cosy affair this.  Just the two of us.  Mind you,  as I’d gone to bed with him the night before it made sense!  He did suggest that we take a bath together but I declined thinking it best not to be too familiar.

“Port Visit - Barbados:”  Before our departure today the Barbados Police Band came quayside and played for about an hour for the passengers queuing to rejoin the vessel. A very jolly event and a nice indication of the constabulary’s priorities.  I could see the Super that morning in Bridgetown saying to the assembled ranks:  ‘well,  y’know as there’s not much crime in Barbados today,  we’ll go down and play for the nice people on the big white boat’. I saw one old dear collapse on the quay and everyone thought ‘oh goodness’ until she got up and promptly fell down again.  She was pissed as a rat.  Absolutely stocious.

Bridge of the Americas:
Aurora concludes it's passage of the Panaman Canal
emerging into the Pacific Ocean.

Wednesday 9th March.  “Crew Rounds Today”:   This is a 
weekly inspection of all the crews’ cabins by the senior officers and the main thing is to ensure that your cabin is reasonably ship shape with one’s life-belt,  emergency card etc. laid on the berth.  The inspecting officer will take a cursory look but if they think your cabin is in a bit of a state it will be reported.  There’s no guarantee just who will be on your round.  For example it was the Staff Captain who popped in this morning.

Flying the Flag!

Port Visit - Costa Maya:  On the Mexican mainland there is nothing here whatsoever apart from a small cruise terminal and that is entirely the beauty of the place.  What there is though is a wealth of gorgeous white beaches and the most turquoise water you’ve ever seen.  There’s also a bar where they serve fantastic jumbo sized margharitas.  These were cocktails so big that I had to have a second and a third just to be sure.

“Man Overboard”:  One of the key emergency signals heard on board the ship is that for Man Overboard which is three blasts of the ship’s whistle.  I was contemplating this one evening as I stood on the foreward deck which is situated directly above the bridge and actually overhangs the ship’s side by about ten feet.  With a very strong wind whipping around me and most of the passengers at dinner I wondered if a sudden gust should whip me over the side what were the odds that anyone would notice?  The best you could hope for would be someone at dinner casually looking out into the darkness as you swept by their window.  Chances are they’d merely shake themselves and instruct the waiter not to open that second bottle of wine tonight.

As it happens,  if the alarm is raised then apparently the Oceana can be about-turned and back at the point at which the alarm was raised in seven minutes.  Be that as it may I looked into the inky black night and pondered the chances of actually being found before you went under.  Not good I thought and sensibly stepped out of the way any sudden gusts.

Acting the Fool, as ever.
 Friday 11th March.  Port Visit - St.Lucia:  Regarded as one of the friendliest of the West Indian islands this was my first taste of gorgeous blue, bath-warm waters and palm trees overhanging the beach with the sun beating down.  Spent the afternoon drinking Caribbean beers and margharitas and trying to sending text messages home as this is the first time I’d been in mobile contact.  Got talking to an interesting chap who is an economics adviser to the Cabinet Office.  We were talking about Iraq and he didn’t think the kick-off was more than about 48 hours away.  As it turned out he was right.  Not that I would have had a clue.  Our one source of news on board is CNN and a rolling news service like just can’t provide a good overview of events.  Added to which,  they happily reported the opening stages of the conflict as they would a baseball game.

Steps of Sydney Opera House
Sunday 13th March.  “Professional Dining”: Another of those dinner conversations:  A sweet elderly Scottish lady leant over to me in a conspiratorial kind of way and in precise Edinburgh tones inquired:  “Tell me Stephen,  is the Cruise Director a homosexual?”  Well, if you saw the CD you’ll hardly think he was anything else, no matter how much he may try to butch things up.  As it was,  I just laughed off the question and said that it really was something that I wouldn’t be able to comment upon.

Speaking of the Cruise Director (my boss) he’s a genuinely impressive character.  A former professional dancer he started working the ships as a dance instructor thirteen years ago.  He has impeccably high standards on all aspects of entertainment and appearance and makes sure he gets himself all about the ship.  Anywhere he goes he always passes through a passenger area and takes time to stop and have a natter with the passengers.  Now,  if you can be doing that after thirteen years in the job,  it can’t be such a labour.

Behind the scenes though he can be more than a little outrageous.  I arrived at lunch one day when he’d only been onboard two days and I was muttering about a particular passenger who was clearly going to be a pain in the neck.  ‘Look Stephen,’ he counselled me, ‘If they get on your tits just tell them to fuck off!’

Recently he’s taken to calling me Maureen so I call him Doreen back.   The other day he told me that I had to butch my walk up.  He said he’d seen me ‘mincing’ on deck.  I’ll tell you,  coming from him (or do I mean ‘her’) that’s a bit rich.  Incidentally,  Ents Officers do actually mince,  but only because they’re always rushing to their next duty and as it wouldn’t do to be seen running about the ship they have to walk very quickly.  Hence the mincing.  Well,  that’s my excuse Ducky and I’m sticking to it!

Fisting in Hong Kong!

Tuesday 15th March.  “Port Visit - St.Maarten”:  With the Golden Princess (110,000 tonnes) berthed in front of us and on the other side of the pier the Radiance of the Seas (140,000) and Holland America’s Zaandam (63,000) this was an incredible sight and all the more so to walk along the pier between these vast ships.  Literally a corridor of white steel rising to 120ft on either side.

Thursday 17th March.  “The Five Margarets”:  this morning at the first office conference of this cruise Neil said to us all,  make a special effort and get to know at least ten passengers by name.  As he pointed out,  it goes down very well if you walking by a group and call out to one or two by name:  ‘how are you doing,  Betty?  Winning at the whist again?’  So,  off I go keen as mustard and in the space of an hour I had met five Margarets!!  I thought someone’s pulling my leg here.  Still,  I only had to call all the old dears ‘Margaret’ and I’d be right more often than not.
The Merry Widows

“Happy Anniversary”:  Passengers are often on a cruise to celebrate  a special anniversary,  sometimes a fortieth or a fiftieth wedding anniversary.  I like to think that one scene I witnessed featured such a couple.  I was walking along one of the cabin corridors when a elderly gentleman came out of his cabin.  Just as he was doing so a voice from inside said …’and don’t be late’.  He shut the door and not realising I’m there bellows to the closed door:  ‘FUCK OFF!!’.  Happy anniversary, Dear!


A chance to entertain some gentleman friends
below deck in my cabin.  What a hoot!

Monday 21st March. “TIA”:  As with most of us,  I’m more than familiar with acronyms such as TBC (to be confirmed),  TBA (to be announced) ,  TOD (ticket on departure) and so on and so forth,  but during the course of this final cruise I was about to discover a new one:  TIA.  Not some nautical or travelling term however.  This one’s a medical expression and as I woke up one Monday morning I could hardly imagine that that numb patch on my chin would by the evening develop into a Transient Ischaemic Attack, or in plain English: a mini-stroke.  So back to that morning.  As I said,  the day began with a distinct numbness on my chin.  It was in my mind’s eye the size of a thumb print.  Now, as I was having to shave often a couple of times a day,  I wondered if it was just my skin complaining.  The sensation remained there through the day but as I was at dinner with my table in the restaurant that evening I felt the numbness move across to my lower jaw.  My lips seem to be unaffected so I was able to chat away and just had to contend with this development at the back of my mind.  Now my Mother has occasionally suffered TIAs so I figured that this is what was happening to me.  Damage seemed to be done so there was not much I could do about it,  but I was depressed at this development right at the beginning of a new job and what it might mean if anything for my future.  For the moment I went about my duties and around nine o’clock I popped back to the office to check something on the notice-board. It was then,  just briefly that I swooned slightly and felt my temperature rise.  No more than about half a minute later I felt ok again,  finished what I was doing and then went on my way.  However,  as I walked away from the office I realised that my left leg was just a little heavy and then I also noticed that the two small fingers on my left hand had gone numb.  It is at this point then that I started to shit myself.  A TIA was one thing,  but this next development suggested that a stroke was on the way.  I hung briefly about one of the back stairwells out of sight trying to analyse how serious the situation and what I should do about it.  In my panic I began to cry and made for my cabin.  It was then that I rang the emergency number for the nurse and she advised me to head for the Medical Centre.

Thanks to sheer bad timing on my part my arrival coincided with a number of passengers having falls or dicky fits and with only one doctor on duty crew come second,  so for the time being I was ‘made comfortable’ and left to stew for about 20 minutes.  However,  when the doctor did get to me he gave a very thorough examination and soon established that my heart-rate was very healthy and all my reflexes were fine.  Only advise being to take an aspirin every day and get it fully checked out when I got home.  ‘These things happen’.  I’m sure they do but NOW and to ME.  Give us a break someone.

By a couple of days later I was fine and the numbness had gone. Still,  three weeks it on I can feel the same tingling if I’ve walked a long distance or have had a few drinks.  Take heed of the warning,  Stephen.  Take heed.

M.V. Oriana on the Panama Canal

Friday 4th April.  Port Everglades – Disembarkation:  Six weeks ago I was at this same location about to come aboard my first ship for my first contract.  Now,  it’s home-time and it’s hard to say where the time went to.  I suppose as one is working extended periods with no weekends or such off to mark the passage of time the weeks do role into one.

Whatever,  it has been a real experience and my appetite is whetted for more.  I’m next due to join the Oriana mid-May for four weeks and then the Adonia for a further month.  During this time I will be sailing out of Southampton first for two weeks in the Canaries,  then it’s two weeks up to the Baltic and ports like Oslo, Helsinki and St.Petersburg and when I’m with the Adonia a fortnight in the Mediterranean climaxing with a misty morning arrival in Venice.

How ever will I cope?

I Left My Heart ... Out and about in San Fran